Monday, April 28, 2008

Alchemy?

Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is a rather simple story. I think its genius lies in its simplicity. The story can be followed by child and adult alike, each one connecting with some aspect of the story and deriving some magical truth out of it.

The stories-within-the-story that captured my imagination the most included the one at the very beginning, ie the tale of Narcissus and the Lake. It’s such a funny statement on human nature. The idea that when each of us shows an interest in our fellow human, it is often a selfish interest is true, and sad in a funny way. Is it possible for a Narcissus to recognize the lake for its beauty, and for its generosity in sustaining various life forms or is he bound to only see his reflection when he peers at the lake’s surface? What of the lake? Does it not notice the vain, insecure man before it? How can the lake’s sole interest be the admiration of its reflection in Narcissus’s eyes? I hope I’m not as cynical as the one who coined and related that tale; I’m one of those who would like to believe that we all have a lot more to offer to the world than mere self-absorption.

I was enchanted by the shepherd, Santiago’s conversation with the wind and with the sun, maybe because it reminded me of the stories my grandparents used to tell me. These were stories in which humans and animals communed with nature and with the elements and learned lessons from them. It takes quite an imagination to dream up a conversation between a shepherd and the wind about love, and a parallel conversation between the shepherd and the sun. Who would have thought that the sun’s love for the earth was what kept the two attracted to each other, but also prevented them from coming any closer to each other?

The greatest lesson taught by this story is, I think, the transformative power of love. True love transforms people and those around them, making them better human beings. Alchemy places an emphasis on the process of transformation rather than on the end product of that transformation. It basically tells us that to get to our destination, we have to make a journey. It is that journey that is important, the destination is more like a secondary consideration.

I’m pondering on the wisdoms in this book and trying to connect them with life experience, or even with something like involvement in social activism or in the TakingITGlobal community. In our interaction with each other in the TIG community, we learn different things about each other and the knowledge we gain transforms us and makes us want to be better world citizens. Perhaps our interactions there can be likened to alchemy?

Creative Commons License
This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name Rose Kahendi as the writer.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Giving and receiving: reciprocity

There seems to be a general recognition that each one of us is perpetually in debt to our community, perhaps for its affording us opportunities that we wouldn’t otherwise have had access to. Some might resent this, so maybe I should modify this claim and state, in addition, that even when the community has been nothing but a source of heartbreak, many still feel an obligation to make it better so that others don’t have to suffer through the same negative experiences in the future.

The challenge to give backto one’s society is a difficult one to meet, especially in this day and age. Life demands much of us- some would say too much- in the name of meeting our basic necessities. When the sun sets and its time to shuffle home and lay down to rest, few people have extra coins in their pockets to spare for a stranger. Still, there is something to be said about giving back.

There is a reason why most religions ask their faithful to be their brother’s keeper. There’s a definite reason why charity, the giving of alms and the provision of relief and humanitarian services are encouraged by religious organizations. There’s an explicit reason for the persistence of the Harambeephilosophy among East Africans. You are free to speculate on what this reason is. My personal opinion is that giving backis only half of a larger concept, that of reciprocity, and that it is the philosophy of reciprocitywhich should be of priority to us all.

I’m trying to avoid being idealistic about giving back. It is too easy to develop dependence on a benefactor and to become a parasite on that well-wisher, expecting him/ her to provide solutions for every crisis that crops up. I emphasize reciprocityto point out that most of us have something to offer to others, and that giving goes in both directions. It just takes a little creativity to realize that. A donor may write a cheque to a community to fund the construction of a community center. That does not stop members of the community from volunteering their services to aid in the construction, or to maintain the community center after it has been built. You do not have to pay back the person who has helped you in kind. It is just as admirable to give to a completely different person, to help them by using your ability/ skill.

Reciprocityrequires a sense of responsibility to the community of one’s origins, or to the community that one resides in. I recognize that monetary donations are necessary for the achievement of certain goals. However, I also want to emphasize that a contribution of one’s personal time and effort can be just as important.

A non-denominational Christian group in a neighborhood that I lived in a few years ago would take advantage of the spring break to go out into the community and volunteer their services to those who needed them. Some of them would take on a task that most of us would view as being dreary: house-cleaning. Consider that the residents of some of the homes they visited were physically handicapped or unwell and couldn’t get around much. Basic housework was an impossibility for them, hence they were reduced to living in squalor. The volunteers efforts may not have received air-time on the evening news, but I do believe that in the eyes of the residents of those homes, they did a world of good. I only wish that the volunteers’ engagement with those homes and families was a year-long one rather than a once-a-year effort.

Elsewhere, I met a group of young men and women who would visit a community center on a weekly basis to help the kids there with their assignments and to befriend them. Most of the children were new to the area and were struggling to fit in because of their unfamiliarity with the language and culture. Being able to chat with “big brothers” and “big sisters” who had the time to listen to them made a big difference in their lives. The children were assured that there were adults they could turn to for support when their own parents were unable to provide that type of guidance.

None of these efforts at volunteerism would have come into being if the people involved had not felt a sense of responsibility towards their communities and if they had not reaped rewards from these efforts. Note that when they went out to offer help to those who needed it, they first inquired as to the needs of those people. Their agenda was not prescriptive. Rather, there was a conversation between them and members of the community, and a relationship was established. Believe it or not, the relationship was a reciprocal one. Each of the young men and women that gave something to the community received something in return: a sense of purpose, appreciative smiles, assistance with something in their own lives with which they were struggling, new friendships, new knowledge and understanding, increased self-esteem. I think that in giving backthey received much in return and this, in turn, strengthened their bonds with the community.

This is something that we should generally keep in mind, especially when wondering why our community ties are fraying and why youth are apathetic about their surroundings. Maybe the simple answer to these questions is that we don’t invest enough in teaching others to understand that they do have meaningful relationships with the rest of the community, whether or not they recognize the existence of those relationships. Perhaps the key to reviving our commitment to our communities is reminding each other that we do have a sense of agency, that we can in fact make a difference by doing little things on a long-term basis and that, in giving, we receive.


First published in TakingITGlobal's Panorama Zine on 22nd April, 2008.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Vast, black emptiness

I am painfully aware that I miss you,
That I will never see you or talk to you again.
The door shut in my face for the last time;
We said our final goodbyes.
All that is left now is the unspoken:
Everything that should have been said but wasn’t said,
Thick and pungent in the air.
I knew your heart, I could read your soul.
Not a word spoken, but I knew.
And now… nothing but memories.
I tried to push you away from the hole, but ended up plunging in myself.
And now I’m falling, falling…
When does this end?
Now I’m angry with you,
Angry that you left,
Angry because you didn’t have a choice.
The decision was made for you.
And for me.
I’m falling, falling…
All around me vast, empty blackness,
Inside me vast, black emptiness,
And the painful awareness that you are gone.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

I can't speak

I want to write, but somehow I can’t.
I see the images in my minds eye.
I know the story, but the words are gone.

Why?

Can you understand the urgency behind my desire to write?
Do you know how important it is for me to tell?

I want to write of my pain and of the emptiness inside.
I want to tell you of a loss that is still fresh.
I want to cry, but can’t.
My voice is gone,
Gone.

Nothing left but the heaviness,
The pain-numbing music,
And a bird trapped inside a gilt-cage,
Wings a-flutter, bashing its head against the bars.

You see my tears, but don’t understand.
How can you?
I can’t speak.

First published in TakingITGlobal's Panorama Zine on 21st April, 2008.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Politics and Language in Africa's Postcolonial Experience

The writings of Ali A Mazrui and Alamin M Mazrui on language and Africa in The Power of Babel: Language and Governance in the African Experience, and in several other publications have provoked me to think deeply about the legacy of language policy in Africa. The thoughts that I outline below come from my engagement with the ideas set forth by these and other scholars.

The development of language and politics in postcolonial Africa has taken divergent paths in different African states. In some cases specific language groups have expanded, while others have shrunk or even vanished. This could be attributed to improved communication in the geographical and linguistic senses, colonial and post-colonial language policies, the work of language promoters (including missionaries, ministers of education and broadcasting and, to some extent, teachers and linguists).

In sub-Saharan Africa , official state languages (in which all official business, including the running of the government and national education, is carried out) have tended to be of European origin. To be more specific, these languages have often been the languages of the colonial powers that once administered these African states. In these cases, while the official language is English, Portuguese, French, German or Spanish, the fact of the matter is that only a tiny elite section of the populations of these countries can use these languages.

Sometimes, the official language of an African country is also its language of national unity. An example is Uganda where the official language of government business in English, and the national language, which is supposed to unite all different linguistic and ethnic groups is also English. In a nation such as Kenya , English is the official language, and Kiswahili, the national language, is spoken by a larger proportion of the population
.
The immediate consequences of having languages of European origin in modern African states are many. For one, foreign policy formulation is usually in the hands of a Western language-speaking elite, which accords disproportionate importance to these languages. Secondly, as the Western languages are keys to major sources of information relevant to foreign policy, policymakers fluent in, say, Portuguese, are more likely to learn about the Lusophone world, and therefore, to promote commercial and political interactions with these regions, as opposed to Francophone or Anglophone regions. Furthermore, these languages are important in orienting the formation of the future elite, so that Kenyans and Nigerians, regardless of their religions, would be more likely to seek admission into British and American universities than into French and Portuguese universities.

On a more local level, the use of European languages in these sub-Saharan states has had the effect of restricting political participation to those who have good command of these languages. In several of these states, the parliamentary language of debate, the language in which the national constitution is written, and the language in which legal procedures are carried out is the ex-colonial language.

It so happens that men within these states are more likely to speak these languages than are their female counterparts. This is attributable to the greater number of educational opportunities available to males. This implies that any attempts to increase female participation in politics would require either a review of the language policy (where politics and parliament are concerned), or a longer-term campaign to make it easier for women to learn the ex-colonial European languages. Looking at the wider picture it becomes clear that not only women, but also the larger populations of these states have been alienated from the law and from political participation by the use of Western languages in judicial and legislative processes. This has deepened the remoteness of the constitution from the citizenry, and may have contributed to the perceived irrelevance of the constitution in most African states, thus slowing down the development of a constitutional culture in most African countries. In addition, it has denied the majority their democratic rights in their democratic right of participation in the formulation of laws.

In Tanzania , the Swahilinization of the legislative process has resulted in greater democratization. There is wider citizen participation in Parliament and it is easier to mobilize more people into the country’s law-making processes, which has, in turn, helped enrich Kiswahili’s legal and constitutional vocabulary.

Of course, there are exceptional cases: within sub-Saharan Africa there are states where the ex-colonial European languages are not the sole languages of national import, or where they simply do not factor into official government business. In Kenya , the use of both Kiswahili and English for parliamentary debate increases the chances for political participation of a wider segment of the population. Interestingly, it was a dictatorial intervention by President Jomo Kenyatta’s in 1974 that introduced Kiswahili into the national assembly. However, the legislation continues to come before parliament in English, thus resuscitating the original problem of linguistic exclusion.

In Somalia , at the time of independence in 1960, Arabic, English and Italian were all adopted as official languages. It was only in 1972 that a military decree of President Mohamed Siad Barre replaced these foreign languages with the official language of Somali (which was more fitting as it was spoken by practically all Somali nationals).

In Tanzania , the unchallenged rule and authority of Julius Nyerere and his CCM (Revolutionary Party) ensured the success of Tanzania’s Swahilinization policy. Across the border, in Uganda, it took a military dictator, Idi Amin Dada, to declare Kiswahili a national language in 1972. These instances all imply that the survival of language policies in favor of African languages could be linked to the survival of autocratic regimes. In other words, the most successful experiments in language planning in Africa might not have been possible without semi-autocratic governments. That is troubling.

It could be argued that there is a link between the use of European languages in African states and continuing white domination over blacks. However, at the same time, one cannot ignore the very real unifying effect of the use of European languages in modern African states, where national identities only appear to transcend ethnic ones. In these states, communalist languages such as Hausa, Luo, Kikuyu and Luganda are directly associated with tribal identity. Thus, in Uganda , any suggestions to use Luganda as a national language would imply the cultural hegemony of an already powerful ethnic group within the state. Other communities would resent such apparent privileging of the culture, traditions and values of the Baganda over their own, and this could very easily lead to the fracturing of the state. In Nigeria , there was similar resentment towards the adoption of Hausa as the national language. These two cases demonstrate that English has a quality that makes it especially suited for use as a language of national unity in some contexts: its ecumenical nature. As an ecumenical language, English is extra-communalist and transcends boundaries of ethnic and racial classification within both Uganda and Nigeria.

In Ethiopia, where Amharic is the national and official language, and in Eritrea, where Tigirinya has the same roles, there is a long history of a consolidated empire, the existence of a national identity, an orthography for the language in question, and a widespread Christian religious identity. All these existed long before the creation of the modern state in Africa , and they have ensured the carrying over of these languages into the running of these respective states.

Further north, in Arabophone Africa, are the Maghrebian countries, and Libya and Egypt . In the Maghreb , the post-colonial governments have adopted language policies aimed at gradually phasing out French and replacing it with Arabic. French colonial policy, especially in Algeria , was especially damaging towards the concept of an Algerian Muslim identity: the French adopted a divide and rule policy by which they tried to reinforce the differences between Berberophone and Arabophone populations. Thus, the postcolonial Algerian government has been especially intolerant of cultural identities other than the Arab Muslim one that they adopted for their nation.

These nations are somewhat reliant on the use of French in their educational and political systems, and because this dependence could not be eliminated upon independence, the drastic Arabization programs adopted in Algeria have sometimes done more harm than good. In Morocco and Tunisia , where the Arabization programs have been less extreme, the importance of French is recognized. In both states, Arabic is the national language, and French is the language of business.

In Egypt , the supremacy of Arabic has been challenged far less strongly. Egypt has actually provided the Arabic language teachers for the Maghrebian Arabization programs. This is partly due to British colonization and the longer and more intense pre-colonial Arabization of the Egyptian population in comparison to the Maghrebian ones. In addition, Egypt, where the al-Azhar University is located, is an important religious center in the Muslim world.

Creative Commons License
This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name Rose Kahendi as the writer.